By Judd Hambrick
Special to the Daily Journal
Greenville, Miss., April 22, 1927: Our worst fears became a raging torrent of reality at 8 o’clock, yesterday morning in the Mississippi Delta. The levee broke 12 miles up the Mississippi River from Greenville at Mounds Landing with a water force engineers say was greater than the power of Niagra Falls, creating a gap in the levee nearly one mile wide.
An unknown number of black laborers, who had been working day and night in torrential rain for three days, building a wall of sand bags on that levee, were swept away by mud, water and fury. The housing structures and many of the people in Mounds Landing below the levee were, likewise, washed away like tiny toys. Mounds Landing is no more. It’s beneath an inland sea 30 to 50 feet deep.
It will take weeks or even months to know how many have died. And, still, the rains continue as destruction gushes through the Delta with unrelenting ferocity – one mile in, two miles in, five miles in. When will the gushing stop? For the moment, answers are giving way to survival. The “whys?” will come later.
With every passing minute, more and more people are stranded on rooftops, clinging to trees, hoping to be rescued, as the waters rage on. Late last night, the churning waters outside the Mounds Landing levee were headed toward Greenville. All who could evacuated the town.
The Army Corps of Engineers has been promising since last fall, when all these heavy rains began, that the levees are engineered to hold back the Mississippi – no matter what. Empty promises.
Last Saturday, a 1,200-foot length of a government levee gave way along the Mississippi River about 30 miles south of Cairo, Ill. An estimated 175,000 acres were quickly flooded. Since then, all of us down river have been wondering, “What major levee is next?” We got Mississippi’s answer yesterday.
This monstrous flood killed at least 246 people and did $5 billion in damage in today’s dollars. There were places in the Mississippi Delta where the Mississippi River was 75 miles wide at the height of the flood.
History proves over and over that events have consequences. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 affected American history like few natural events before or since. There were other consequences, but here are four major historical consequences of that great flood 82 years ago:
n Little known Herbert Hoover, who was in charge of the flood relief operations, was thrust into the national spotlight. Hoover was lauded from coast to coast for his masterful handling of the 154 refugee camps for some 750,000 people displaced by the flood. That helped earn him the presidency of the United States in 1928.
n However, studies were done during the relief operations that found enormous mistreatment of the 330,000 black Americans who had been displaced by the waters. Boats would arrive in stricken areas and evacuate whites and leave blacks to fend for themselves.
Many blacks were detained and forced to work in the relief effort at gunpoint. The black population was simply not recognized as requiring relief aid. Herbert Hoover insisted these horribly negative reports be kept out of the media, promising that if he was elected president, he would institute reforms to help the blacks. Hoover was elected, but he failed to keep his promises, so the blacks shifted their allegiance from Hoover and the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, where most reside today, which ensured the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932.
n As a result of their treatment and the economic destruction of the flood, tens of thousands of blacks moved to the big cities of the North, particularly Chicago, and many thousands more followed in the next few decades. It was the greatest internal shift of population in U.S. history.
n And, because of this mass movement of blacks, the flood resulted in a huge cultural output in the arts as well, inspiring novels, folk music and, of course, the idea of blues music being a separate musical genre arose during this migration, both in the Delta and in Chicago. These four consequences help to ensure The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 will be remembered and studied for years to come as a major event in Southern Memories.